Kevin Killian: What I Saw at the Orono Conference 2008, part 3

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In the lobby of Lord Hall we emerged into a buzzing cluster of familiar poets and friends, and beyond the bar area in the lobby you could see, through a pair of glass panels, the exhibition we had come to celebrate, “Art of the 1970s,” organized by Laurie Hicks of U-Maine’s Art Department. It was an insanely clever idea that depended, of course, on the University Art Museum having enough prints and such from the 1970s to be able to pull it off, and from my one glimpse through the glass it looked like they had done it up beautifully. You could see a Rosenquist, a Miro, what looked like a Warhol, like a Warhol portrait of—was it Mick Jagger? The piece de resistance was supposed to be a reconstruction of Bernadette Mayer’s legendary installation/slide show Memory, from elements preserved at the Archive for New Poetry in San Diego. Yeah, that probably was good, if you had eight hours, but it was drinking time, and I found myself slipping away from the gallery window by my need not to drink but to say hi and to hug a few dozen old friends who do drink. Some I hardly knew, but we were so far away from home that at a party, formalities get abandoned by mutual, unspoken consent, so it was hearty back slaps and tender hugs all around. Clark and Susan Coolidge stood there, Clark tall and presidential, if a mortician had been elected president, and Susan always so chic and unruffled; they were dressed like Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in the safari chic of Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985). I saw Keith Tuma across the room, a familiar face from many long years ago, but I had never met his wife Diane—and I was hitting fashion gold, for she was wearing a tight white cotton shirt with slightly puffed sleeves, a pair of brown gabardine trousers that stopped in mid calf, trousers just the color of her chestnut hair. We have a winner! Then across the gallery I spotted a rangy young man with dark Byronic good looks who reminded me of someone I had known once here in San Francisco, the artist Will Yackulic, the resemblance so striking I nearly called out, “Hey Will,” but another voice interrupted, and I was to chase this phantom all over the hills and fields of Orono in the days to come, this Will lookalike—this mystery boy. With a kiss curl not on his forehead, like Mary Pickford, but curling around the side of his neck behind his ear, wilting a little due to the heat. We were at a stage where few wore their name tags, so passing by this fellow with my eye on his lapel didn’t get me to a place where I could say I knew who he was. Oh well, I could ask Keith Tuma later—if I could make him swear he’d be discreet.

Mystery man who later turned out to be Justin Katko of Providence. You can't see the curl behind his ear in this picture but believe me, it's there.

Happily Eileen had come, Eileen Myles, all in black, in fact she had come up the night before so she was perfectly rested—now that’s clever! But when we heard her game plan we were aghast with worry. She was going to give a reading this evening—and then drive back to Boston or New York—and get on a plane and go to LA to read at the Hammer Museum. And then she was going to turn around and fly back and drive back here to Maine in order to take part on our panel on Saturday. Now, I’ve heard of these Hammer readings as being sort of prestigious, but never could I imagine someone coming to Maine, going to LA, then coming back to Maine just for one event. I swallowed hard, considering once again, as I had for 30 years, Eileen’s amazing courage, in her so closely aligned with insouciance I could barely tell the difference. And wherever I see her, she’s totally present, not tired, not jet lagged, always ready, bouncing on the balls of her feet as though to take on whatever challenges for good or bad come her way. This scene, on the outskirts of the art gallery, had to it something of the rapid-fire changes in reality of that last volume of Proust: everyone is there from all the previous volumes, but changed somehow, and the ones who looked the same were probably actually the children, now grown, of those you had known before the war.

Eileen Myles, before the war

Oh look, there was Linda Russo—last seen trawling the wintry halls of the Art Institute of Chicago, advising us to see the Jasper Johns “Gray” show, the very show that sounded too depressing even to think about. I can hardly keep up with where Linda Russo works any more. I remember her from Buffalo, where she was a student, and now, she tells us, she has gotten a new job at a school in Eastern Washington state—so she’ll be nearby, or nearbyer, to coin a phrase. It was all I could do to keep from warning her about going there, for I had been scared silly by a two part Lifetime Television for Women miniseries, that Dodie had insisted we watch, called The Search for the Green River Killer. Pastoral country, that Washington state, but one haunted by serial killers who rampage with impunity, and I cared about Linda, I did indeed. What prevented me from speaking out? Only a thin little voice in my cerebrum telling me, that was only a TV show, Kevin, be happy for her good news and for God’s sakes, stop borrowing trouble, you’re turning into, oh, what’s her name in that house made of stilts in Russia? I grimaced till it came to me: Baba Yaga. “Oh Linda, that’s marvelous,” I managed to croak out, “Now you won’t be a stranger!”

Stepping outdoors on the grass of the Quad we were taken aback by a huge rainbow that stretched out from far left to far right--you couldn’t see it all properly, and when I stepped back with my camera to take a picture, I had to take it in two two’s. Everyone simply stopped cold still like the end of “The Day Lady Died.” Some said it was a double rainbow. Against the fading of the light it was luminous, and strong. I wonder if it was still there an hour later, when all was dark—do rainbows exist after dark, or iare they some byproduct of sun on top of rain? In any case one thought immediately that the rainbow, single or double, was a magnificent omen, or sigil, for the events to come.

The famous lilac or lavender scarf

We traipsed through a colonnade of brick walls and tree plantings and in the quiet dusk you could see the cone shapes of lilac, you could smell their homey scent. Behind me a young woman asked if she could come with us as she wasn’t sure how to get to the next lecture hall. “Are you giving a paper?” I asked. “No, I’m just here to listen,” she said. She couldn’t know why I found her such a rare specimen. The thing was that Dodie and I were asking each other all the way there if everyone we met would be a speaker, or were there any who were just audience members. “Stick with me,” I told the listening woman. “I’ll deliver you to the right place.” Male arrogance I guess, since nobody knew exactly where to go, and I was just following after lingering traces of Maria Damon. The young woman said she was from the Bay Area (yay!) and was studying the epic in 70s poetry like Mayer, Coolidge, Hejinian. These must have been the names that unlocked the darkness for out of the night a bright square blinked and shone in the distance, Steve Evans holding open the door to the building we sought. “Steve,” I cried out, “here’s a girl came from Berkeley to be in the audience!” but when I looked back over my shoulder I saw nothing, only absence, and a scent of lavender hung for a moment in the air, then dissipated. A phantom poetry student? It was like that old urban legend that used to scare me as a Boy Scout of the vanishing hitchhiker—she who appeared before the young man’s convertible in a party dress at midnight, disheveled and in tears—and the driver drops her off at her home, but she’s left behind her lavender scarf in his passenger seat, so he returns the next day, and—well, you know it as well as I do! Stern Gothic parents let him cross the threshold, point to a portrait on the covered piano—it’s her in that same violet dress, the dress she wore to her prom five years ago, the night she died on her way home. He looks more closely—there’s the chiffon scarf tied round her neck, the same scarf he’s clutching in his suddenly sweaty hands.

Fred Wah, first plenary speaker

To Fred Wah fell the chore of igniting the crowd that filled the auditorium at Mirsky Hall. He looked nervous, standing before us with a clip on microphone that soon, upon his brave launch, failed him utterly, banging out every other word over the last row of the stands, and dropping the remainder into a silence bushier than his beard. “Are people hearing me?” he hazarded, and no one knew what to reply. The truth is, we were hearing large parts of him—some nouns, most adjectives—and that was thrilling enough, but if he hoped for some sustained contact with his audience, he wasn’t getting it. I had heard Wah read before, a number of times, in Canada and in the US both. But only now, due to the faulty dynamics of his presentation, did I totally understand his fish out of water appeal. First time I saw him read was at some grand affair in Vancouver, and while he sat on stage another poet took the podium, a man of Wah’s generation, and began to read. From behind us a third poet, known far and wide for her elegance and for the beauty of the writing, leaned forward and whispered in Dodie’s ear, “He’s got the biggest cock in Canada.” That was an eyeopener, and never since have I been able to see Fred Wah read without this useless factoid cluttering my visual field, for it was impossible to discern which of the two poets on the Vancouver stage was the subject of our elegant friend’s revelation. But I’m plumping for Fred and I say, more power to him. Tonight he read briefly from some 70s poems, 80s poems, and read a lot from a new book called Sentenced to Light, which I ran right out and snapped up from the store. It is a collection of his various collaborations with visual artists . . . (to be continued) . . .


Jasper Bernes said...

Ah yes, that apparition, she of the non-presenting spectatorship, must have been Sophia Wang!

Nicoloff said...

Don't worry, Kevin. The Green River killer was caught long ago, and he was in western Washington (where I'm from).

Fun fact I just learned from Wikipedia: "There have been sporadic movements to create a 51st state out of Eastern Washington by splitting the current state down the Cascades, but proposals have rarely progressed out of the state legislature's committees. Recent proposals were made in 1996, 1999, and 2005. Proposed names for the new state have included Lincoln, and Columbia, or simply Eastern Washington. Many of these proposals were to include the Idaho Panhandle."